Bringing brass scales and a metal box--"Pandora's box"--to court as props. Raving about legal arguments--"awesome . . . some of the best lawyering I have seen"--even as he rejects them. Questioning the integrity of a commission headed by one of Los Angeles' more formidable citizens.
In his early stewardship of the volatile case of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney G. King, Superior Court Judge Bernard J. Kamins has demonstrated a penchant for creativity and unpredictability.
Last week, Kamins wrote a letter to an appellate court unexpectedly offering to move the trial out of Los Angeles County--a move he had twice denied. The appellate court passed on the offer, but several of Kamins' colleagues described themselves as "shocked" by his reversal, which the judge said was a bid to push the case to trial without further delay.
The trial was to have begun last week, but is postponed indefinitely as Kamins' decision to block a change of venue is appealed. Whether conducted in or out of Los Angeles, the case is certain to attract extraordinary attention, affording Kamins a fling at public recognition not normally available to lower court judges in the sprawling Superior Court system. It can be a daunting exposure.
"It's like being in a pressure cooker because of the media," said Superior Court Judge William Pounders, who conducted the McMartin Pre-School molestation trial. "Every good and bad move you make is magnified."
Kamins, 48, a former public defender, is known as a risk-taker and court reformer who seems to be thriving on the King case. On the surface, the case is one of simple assault, but it has given rise to complex legal questions and political controversies reaching far beyond the courtroom.
"He is making cutting-edge decisions and desperately wants to do the right thing," said U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Alarcon, Kamins' mentor and former teacher.
Interviews with fellow judges, supervisors, courtroom opponents, friends and others reveal a man highly respected for his personal integrity and his legal work. Kamins' critics--a definite minority--regard him as a self-promoter, a man who needs approval and an indecisive judge wont to change his rulings overnight.
There is no question he brings a distinctive flair to the bench.
For instance, there are his props. Those who know Kamins said he uses visual aids such as the scales--representing the scales of justice--and boxes as a way to explain the court process to the television-watching public.
"He's trying," said one colleague, "to tell the guy who's sitting at home in front of the television with a beer that this is why he ruled the way he did."
While he might play to the cameras, Kamins can hardly be accused of coddling the press. He has fined a Times reporter for refusing to reveal a source and a Los Angeles Daily News reporter for leaving a tape recorder turned on at a closed court session.
His decisions from the bench often come couched in refreshingly conversational language, and he apparently is not afraid of thinking out loud.
"What you see and what is caught on camera is 'honesty,' a judge wrestling with problems for which there is no real solution," said Alarcon. "He's not afraid to reach conclusions and then rethink them, and some people can't handle that. They want certainty."
Last month, Kamins tentatively denied a defense request that the trial be held elsewhere because of local political fallout and intense publicity. After hearing impassioned pleas from several defense attorneys, he had second thoughts.
"I don't think I'm gonna be able to make a final decision on this today," he said. "I was all happy and came here wagging my tail, and now you've raised 13 good issues."
The next morning, he denied the motion, but not before telling the lawyers: "Yesterday was awesome." Their argument, he said, was "some of the best lawyering I have seen in my six years on the bench, and some of the best I've seen in the 22 years I've been in the legal system."
"I was shaken," he went on. "Until yesterday, I had no doubt about the decision I was making. You really made me reconsider."
Nonetheless, the change of venue motion was denied.
Another time, representatives of the Christopher Commission came to Kamins' court seeking access to confidential police documents that they said would help the panel fulfill its charter to investigate the King beating. The documents, they promised, would be seen only by Warren Christopher, a prestigious Los Angeles lawyer who, as President Jimmy Carter's deputy secretary of state from 1977 to 1981, was widely credited for securing release of the Iran hostages.
Kamins would not grant the request, suggesting that the Christopher Commission was engaged in a "cover-your-backside report."
Later, Kamins said Christopher could read the documents, take notes and discuss them with the commission--but only in the presence of one of the judge's law clerks.
Sometimes, Kamins seems to make snap decisions he will later regret. His staff members said he frequently consults with other judges, has three law clerks researching key issues raised by the King case, and has been known to stay up until 4 a.m. preparing for the next day in court.
"I never shoot from the hip," Kamins told the eight lawyers assembled before him last week for pretrial motions in the King case. "My decision to send the letter (to the appeals court) was hard to make. It didn't take just 10 minutes."
Other judges said Kamins has a good record of avoiding reversals on his legal decisions.
A Deukmejian appointee to the West Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1985, Kamins was elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench a year later. Attorneys who have argued cases before him describe him as "fair," "a relatively tough sentencer," "even-tempered," "hard working," "innovative," and "unfailingly polite" to defendants as well as to lawyers and witnesses. Most add "charismatic."
Pounders said Kamins was the first judge to decide on his own to handle all cases assigned to his courtroom from start to finish. Until recently, cases passed through several courtrooms as they wound their way toward disposition, but now most judges follow his example.
He began questioning prospective jurors himself long before Proposition 115 sanctioned the procedure--and said he will do so again during jury selection for the King trial.
Kamins has showed that he can accomplish as much in a morning as some other judges do in a full day--in part because he does not allow long breaks or lunches.
"Welcome to diet court," he tells newcomers to Department 114. "We could all stand to lose some weight."
Some judges have raised eyebrows over Kamins' informal courtroom demeanor and sometimes surprising decisions.
"Sure," said Superior Court Judge Judith Chirlin, "there have been discussions about whether his creativity is getting in the way of solid judicial decision-making. But he is willing to do things other judges would be shy of doing. . . . The traditional judge's role has never burdened Bernie."
Kamins spent 15 years as a deputy public defender.
Attorney Frank Morse, who as a deputy district attorney in the '70s frequently battled Kamins in court, said: "He was one of the few public defenders who really gave a damn about his clients. . . . He's one of the best I ever saw."
Deputy public defender Kamins became something of a legend. There was the time that his client pleaded guilty to a burglary and Kamins persuaded him to return irreplaceable jewelry to a grateful victim.
Or the time he traveled to Arkansas to clear his client of murder by getting a confession from the defendant's cousin.
And the many times the individualized punishment plans he fashioned for defendants were applauded by the probation department and adopted by the judge.
"He pioneered that concept of trying to individualize punishment to meet the needs of the client and protect society," said Alarcon, "and he lectured all over the country about it."
The son of a Hollywood publicist and a secretary, Kamins graduated from Los Angeles' University High and decided he wanted to become a judge--not a lawyer--while an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. He graduated from USC Law School, and now teaches criminal law at Pepperdine University.
Kamins and his wife of 18 years--a third-grade teacher he met on a blind date--have two children. He jogs and works out, and is on the board of directors of his local YMCA.
Kamins, who says he likes working with children, recently presided at a most unusual trial, squeezed into a recess between a manslaughter case and the lengthy King proceedings.
The defendant in the mock trial, staged for the benefit of giggling third graders, was Goldilocks, charged with burglary. Did she have the intent to steal when she entered the Three Bears' house without permission? Was she guilty?
Kamins said later he often goes through this exercise with children, adding the intent is to make the court process more "user-friendly" for the next generation of litigants.